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The content he refers to is very much KI content rather than GP, but he raises a traditional, if rather unpopular and abstract idea of the purpose of education: “the disinterested pursuit of truth”. (Vocabulary note explained in the text but important to highlight: ‘disinterested’ refers to a lack of interest in the sense of being impartial, which is quite different from ‘uninterested’, referring to a lack of interest in the sense of apathy).

Is this view of the purpose of a university education still relevant today, especially when the cost of such education is rising rapidly? Is it overly idealistic?

The Most Important Class I Took in NUS

by Eli James

The NUS class that most changed me was a junior seminar called Proof: What’s truth got to do with it? by Math and Computer Science Professor Tay Yong Chiang. This was a Tembusu College module, which meant you had to be part of the college to read it; long after the class had concluded I thought back and wondered how different I might have turned out had I not chosen to do it in my third year.

How I came to take the module is an interesting story. One semester before, I had spent a lazy afternoon in Tembusu reading a collection of articles on the purpose of a university education. Some of those pieces dealt with the tension – felt especially in universities with strong industry ties – of being a place of vocational training, as opposed to a place with the noble task of producing better human beings. I was conflicted because NUS was clearly for the former, and not obviously for the latter.

I ran into Professor Tay shortly after and – knowing that he came from Harvard – asked him about it. “If one purpose of a university is to create better human beings,” I said, “Wouldn’t this mean that most Asian universities – focused on vocational purposes – aren’t good universities?”

Professor Tay smiled. “You know I teach a class about Proofs and Truth?” he said. “Well, take it next semester and you’ll see.”

My friend Div came back from Israel not long after. When he told me he had to fulfil a Tembusu requirement, I told him about Professor Tay’s pitch and how it seemed like a fun class. This was how we ended up taking it together. We did not know what to expect.

The first session of the module started oddly. Professor Tay handed out syllabus printouts, with the logos of Yale and Harvard printed at the bottom. “Look at those crests,” he said. “What do you see?”

“Veritas,” one of us replied.

“Doesn’t that mean ‘truth’?” another said.

“Yes.” said Prof Tay. “In Harvard, on graduation, the master of your house gives you your scroll and then welcomes you to ‘the fellowship of educated men and women’. They believed that the mark of an educated person is that he or she would have an independent desire to know the truth. The point of education is to cultivate that desire in them.

“In this class, we’ll look at what that means.”


In 1969, Singapore’s then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew declared that poetry was “a luxury we cannot afford” – arguing, in an address at NUS, that the economic needs of the nation demanded an education system oriented for vocational training. Most of us living in Singapore know this vulnerability narrative pretty well: “Singapore is small and without natural resources”, the narrative goes, “we must take the world as it is.” There was no space for universities to create ‘better human beings’.

Things are certainly changing in NUS – Yale-NUS is now one of the few liberal arts in the region. Back then, however, I had no conception of what it meant for a university to create ‘better human beings’. I was a Computer Science student. Before Tembusu College, I thought that Sociology was a spectacular waste of time, that Philosophy was singularly useless, that English Literature was questionable as a discipline. The idea that studying these subjects could make one a ‘better human being’ seemed odd; the idea that universities had a separate mission apart from teaching its students to create value in the world was completely foreign to my mind.

Perhaps this wasn’t so surprising. Most Asian education systems bear the brunt of producing graduates to help with the difficult task of national development. There are very few liberal arts colleges in Asia, and none in Malaysia, where I’m from. I am therefore the product of a system where the belief is that you go to universities to get a job, and that jobs are great first because you get to make money (and your parents can boast of you) and second because they contribute to the nation’s future.

Imagine my surprise when I learnt that there existed a different perspective in the (admittedly American) model of the university. In a 2010 speech in Jerusalem, Gerhard Casper, the former president of Stanford, reflected on the danger of corruption of a university’s mission when scholars engaged in political advocacy. “A university should keep to its most fundamental purpose,” he argued: “‘the disinterested pursuit of truth.’”